Mission Impossible: Can the Broncos win the Super Bowl a year after losing it?

Jamie Squire

Can the Broncos become the first team since 1972 to lose the Super Bowl one season and return to win it the following one?

John Elway, John Fox and company will be trying to use the 2014 Free Agency and the 2014 NFL Draft to build a team that can buck history. "Buck history?" you might ask. Yes, buck history: it has been twenty years since a team has lost the Super Bowl and returned to play in it the following season. In that same twenty year span, nine Super Bowl losers did not even make the playoffs the following year and only two teams made it past the divisional round.

A survey of the forty-eight Super Bowl losers finds the following:

14 (29.2%) failed to make the playoffs the following year (67 Chiefs, 69 Colts, 88 Broncos, 89 Bengals, 90 Broncos, 94 Bills, 99 Falcons, 01 Giants, 02 Rams, 03 Raiders, 04 Panthers, 05 Eagles, 07 Bears, 08 Patriots)

7 (14.6%) did not make it past the Wild Card round (80 Rams, 81 Eagles, 82 Bengals, 95 Chargers, 98 Packers, 10 Colts, 11 Steelers)

14 (29.2%) fell in the Divisional round (70 Vikings, 73 Redskins, 75 Vikings, 76 Cowboys, 78 Broncos, 79 Cowboys, 83 Dolphins, 84 Redskins, 86 Patriots, 96 Steelers, 97 Patriots, 00 Titans, 06 Seahawks, 09 Cardinals)

5 (10.4%) made it to their conference championship game but lost (68 Raiders, 77 Vikings, 85 Dolphins, 12 Patriots, 13 49ers)

7 (14.6%) made it back to the Super Bowl (71 Cowboys, 72 Dolphins, 74 Vikings, 87 Broncos, 91 Bills, 92 Bills, 93 Bills)

It is worth noting that three of those seven returns to the Super Bowl were made by the Buffalo Bills during their infamous four consecutive Super Bowl losses. It is further worth noting that five of those seven returns resulted in a loss for the returning team (74 Vikings, 87 Broncos, 91-93 Bills). Only the 1971 Cowboys and the 1972 Dolphins were able to not only return to the Super Bowl but walk away with a victory.

The Broncos own track record after losing a Super Bowl has not been anything to boast about:

The 1977 Broncos lost Super Bowl XII to the Dallas Cowboys 27-10. The 1978 Broncos recorded a 10-6-0 record to win the AFC West but lost 33-10 to the Pittsburgh Steelers in the Divisional round.

The 1986 Broncos lost Super Bowl XXI to the New York Giants 39-20. The 1987 Broncos recorded a 10-4-1 record to win the AFC West, defeated the Houston Oilers 34-10 in the Divisional round, defeated the Cleveland Browns 38-33 in the AFC Championship game only to lose to the Washington Redskins 42-10 in Super Bowl XXII. The 1988 Broncos recorded an 8-8-0 record and missed the playoffs.

The 1989 Broncos were drubbed 55-10 in Super Bowl XVI by the San Francisco 49ers. The 1990 Broncos finished in last place in the AFC West with a 5-11-0 record and missed the playoffs.

So, yes, Elway and Fox have a large job in front of them if they want to buck history. Perhaps one thing that should be considered is the fact that two teams were able to manage the feat that all Broncos fans want to see: the team not only return to the Super Bowl but win it.

As mentioned above, the 1971 Cowboys and the 1972 Dolphins were able to do this. When we look at these two teams we can see a couple of similarities.

The 1969 Cowboys ended their season with an 11-2-1 record and a 1st place finish in the Capital Division of the NFL. They were ranked 2nd in offense and 4th in defense. They had a point differential of +146 and a turnover differential of +5. The '69 Cowboys lost in the Divisional round of the playoffs.

The 1970 Cowboys returned seven starters on offense -- all four of the new starters had been on the 1969 roster. They returned nine starters on defense -- neither of the two new starters had been on the 1969 roster. All told, 65% of the '70 Cowboys roster was drawn from 1969 roster. They added eight veteran free agents and seven rookies. The '70 Cowboys finished with a 10-4-0 record and a 1st place finish in the NFC East. They were ranked 10th in offense and 4th in defense. They had a point differential of +78 and a turnover differential of +11. The '70 Cowboys lost to the Baltimore Colts 16-13 in Super Bowl V.

The 1971 Cowboys returned six offensive starters -- three of the other five had been on the 1970 roster and two were free agent additions. They returned ten starters on defense -- the one "new" starter had been on the 1970 roster. All told, 73% of the '71 Cowboys roster was drawn from the 1970 roster. They added six veteran free agents and seven rookies. The '71 Cowboys finished with an 11-3-0 record and a 1st place finish in the NFC East. They were ranked 1st in offense and 3rd in defense. They had a point differential of +222 and a turnover differential of +16. The '71 Cowboys defeated the Miami Dolphins 24-3 in Super Bowl VI.

The 1970 Dolphins ended their season with a 10-4-0 record and a 2nd place finish in the AFC East. They were ranked 11th in offense and 5th in defense. They had a point differential of +69 and a turnover differential of +8. The '70 Dolphins lost in the Divisional round of the playoffs.

The 1971 Dolphins returned ten offensive starters -- the "new" starter had been on the 1970 roster. They returned nine defensive starters -- both of the "new" starters had been on the 1970 roster. All told, 80% of the '71 Dolphins roster was drawn from the 1970 roster. They added six veteran free agents and three rookies. The '71 Dolphins finished with a 10-3-1 record and a 1st place finish in the AFC East. They were ranked 4th in offense and 3rd in defense. They had a point differential of +141 and a turnover differential of +8. The '71 Dolphins lost to the Dallas Cowboys 24-3 in Super Bowl VI.

The 1972 Dolphins returned nine offensive starters -- only one of the two new starters had been on the 1971 roster, the other was a free agent addition. They returned ten defensive starters -- the new starter had been on the 1971 roster. All told, 73% of the '72 Dolphins roster was drawn from the 1971 roster. They added seven veteran free agents and five rookies. The '72 Dolphins finished with a 14-0-0 record and a 1st place finish in the AFC East. They were ranked 1st in both offense and defense. They had a point differential of +214 and a turnover differential of +18. The '72 Dolphins defeated the Washington Redskins 14-7 in Super Bowl VII.

Another way to summarize this data looks like this:

Cowboys Dolphins

1969 1970 1971 1970 1971 1972
Finish 1 1 1 2 1 1
Offense Ranking 2 10 1 11 4 1
Defense Ranking 4 4 3 5 3 1
Point Differential +146 +78 +222 +69 +141 +214
Turnover Differential +5 +11 +16 +8 +8 +18
Pct from Prev Roster NA 65 74 NA 80 73
Free Agents NA 8 6 NA 6 7
Rookies NA 7 7 NA 3 5
Returning Off Starters NA 7 6 NA 10 9
New Starters From Prev Roster NA 4 3 NA 1 1
Returning Defensive Starters NA 9 10 NA 9 10
New Starters From Prev Roster NA 0 1 NA 2 1

As I mentioned above, there are a couple of similarities between these two teams that are worth noting:

(1)The high retention rate in the rosters. Both teams retained 73% of the roster that had lost the Super Bowl the previous year.

(2)The retention rate of offensive starters was almost identical (counting players who had been on the roster but not starters the previous year) -- 9 for the Cowboys and 10 for the Dolphins.

(3)The defenses were preserved almost intact with 10 returning starters each and the 11th player having been on the previous roster.

(4)This roster stability most likely played a role in the improvements by both teams in Offensive ranking, Point Differential and Turnover Differential.

When we look at these characteristics of the two teams that have successfully returned to the Super Bowl and won it after losing it the previous season, we can see that the Broncos have quite a bit of work to do be able to buck history in 2014. Here is a look at the three seasons of the Elway/Fox era:

The 2011 Broncos ended their season with an 8-8-0 record and a 1st place finish in the AFC West. They were ranked 25th in offense and 24th in defense. They had a point differential of -81 and a turnover differential of -12. The '11 Broncos lost in the Divisional round of the playoffs.

The 2012 Broncos returned five offensive starters -- three of the six new starters had been on the 2011 roster. They returned three defensive starters -- three of the eight new starters had been on the 2011 roster. All told, 56% of the '12 Broncos roster was drawn from the 2011 roster. They added seventeen veteran free agents and nine rookies. The '12 Broncos finished with a 13-3-0 record and a 1st place finish in the AFC West. They were ranked 2nd in offense and 4th in defense. They had a point differential of +192 and a turnover differential of -1. The '12 Broncos lost in the Divisional round of the playoffs.

The 2013 Broncos returned seven offensive starters -- three of the four new starters had been on the 2012 roster. They returned six defensive starters -- four of the five new starters had been on the 2012 roster. All told, 63% of the '13 Broncos roster was drawn from the 2012 roster. They added fifteen veteran free agents and eight rookies. The '13 Broncos finished with a 13-3-0 record and and a 1st place finish in the AFC West. They were ranked 1st in offense and 22nd in defense. They had a point differential of +399 and a turnover differential of +0. The '13 Broncos lost to the Seattle Seahawks 43-8 in Super Bowl XLVIII.

Another way to summarize this data looks like this:

Broncos

2011 2012 2013
Finish 1 1 1
Offense Ranking 25 2 1
Defense Ranking 24 4 19
Point Differential -81 +192 +399
Turnover Differential -12 -1 +0
Pct from Prev Roster NA 56 63
Free Agents NA 17 15
Rookies NA 9 8
Returning Off Starters NA 5 7
New Starters From Prev Roster NA 3 3
Returning Defensive Starters NA 3 6
New Starters From Prev Roster NA 3 4

There are a couple of similarities between the 69-70 Cowboys, the 70-71 Dolphins and the 12-13 Broncos, beyond having simply lost in the divisional round then in the Super Bowl the following season. All of these teams finished at or near the top of their respective divisions each year. All showed improvement on the offensive side of the ball. Denver and Miami both improved their point differential, though Dallas saw a drop.

There are also, however, some glaring difference which the 2014 Broncos will need to address should they wish to become the first team since 1972 to have lost a Super Bowl and then gone on to win it the following season.

First, the Broncos need to address the effectiveness of the defense. A 19th-ranked defense is not going to get the job done. Both the Cowboys and the Dolphins were able to post defensive rankings among the top five in the league to win their Super Bowls -- however it should be noted that both teams had similarly ranked defenses the previous year.

Now the Broncos 19th ranking is somewhat deceptive. They were also ranked 7th against the run, but 27th against the pass. It can be argued that, at least, a portion of their struggles against the pass came because Denver so often had large leads that opponents were passing excessively to try and catch up. While true, it does not change the fact that the Broncos were in the bottom quarter of the league in defending against passing touchdowns, allowing first downs and giving up passing plays of twenty-yards or more. The Broncos have some serious questions to answer regarding their pass defense schemes and personnel.

Second, the Broncos only broke even in the turnover differential. Again, this will not get it done. Both the Cowboys and the Dolphins not only had positive turnover differentials each of the three years surveyed, but they increased that positive differential each year. The Broncos have done a remarkable job of moving from a -12 differential in 2011 to a +0 one in 2013. They'll need to get even better if they want a shot at a Super Bowl title in 2014. This improvement will fall upon both sides of the ball.

Third, the Broncos must solve the defense's inconsistent ability to stop the opposing offense and get their own offense back on the field. This became a major problem that exacerbated Denver's offensive struggles in Super Bowl XLVIII. The Seahawks had three offensive drives in the first quarter and scored on all three -- two field goals and a touchdown. In the second half, after the Broncos' special team unit had given up a kickoff return for a touchdown, the defense did force a punt on Seattle's first offensive drive, but then gave up touchdowns on each of the Seahawks' next two offensive drives.

Fourth, and finally, both the 71 Cowboys and the 72 Dolphins had rosters that were drawn predominantly from the previous season's roster -- 73% of each Super Bowl-winning roster had been with the team the year before. As fans and team officials begin to speculate and project which 2013 Broncos will be back with the team in 2014, a key question becomes, "Will the Broncos be able to construct a roster that is nearly three-quarters comprised by returning players?" The Broncos, under Elway/Fox, have averaged having 59 players on the roster each year (realizing that some were veterans brought in to replace injured players). Given that average, the Broncos would need to return 44 players from the 2013 roster. Which forty-four would you see as being back? Another question is "Will the Broncos be able to boast a group of 9-10 starters on each side of the ball who had either started or been on the roster in 2013?" How these questions are answered will go a long way toward determining whether the concerns raised above will be successfully resolved.

With these questions and concerns in mind, can the 2014 Broncos "buck history" by winning Super Bowl XLIX? As one of the Water Cooler Quarterbacks likes to comment, "In today's NFL, anything is possible . . . but is it likely?"

So, is it possible? Sure.

Is it likely? That one I'm far less confident about.

Go Broncos!!!!

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